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“Assassination of a Saint”: Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero Is Canonized as Murder Remains Unsolved

Web ExclusiveOctober 15, 2018
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As Pope Francis names Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero a saint, we continue our interview with Matt Eisenbrandt, a human rights lawyer and the author of “Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice.” Romero was a champion for the poor and oppressed who was murdered by a U.S.-backed right-wing death squad in 1980 at the beginning of the brutal U.S.-backed military campaign in El Salvador. Eisenbrandt served on the trial team that brought the only court verdict ever reached for Romero’s murder.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!, as we continue our discussion on the canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero. Archbishop Romero was a champion for the poor and oppressed who was murdered by a U.S.-backed right-wing death squad, March 24th, 1980, at the beginning of the brutal U.S.-backed war in El Salvador.

On Sunday, Pope Francis made Romero a saint, along with Pope Paul VI and five others. Wearing the blood-stained rope belt that Romero wore when he was assassinated, Pope Francis, who’s originally from Argentina, was praising Romero for disregarding his own life to be close to the poor and to his people.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] It is wonderful that, together with Pope Paul VI and the other new saints today, there’s Archbishop Romero, who left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters.

AMY GOODMAN: Only weeks before his assassination, Archbishop Romero wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter, calling on him not to provide military aid to the right-wing Salvadoran military government. Then, in the Archbishop’s final and now-famous sermon, he made a direct appeal to Salvadoran soldiers to lay down their weapons.

ARCHBISHOP ÓSCAR ROMERO: [translated] In his name and in the name of our tormented people who have suffered so much and whose laments cry out to heaven, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression!

AMY GOODMAN: The next day, a driver and a gunman pulled up in a red Volkswagen Passat outside of the church where Archbishop Romero was giving mass. The gunman fired a single shot from the car, killing Romero. Romero’s murder was one of the most shocking of the long conflict between a series of U.S.-backed governments and leftist rebels in which thousands of dissidents and everyday civilians in Salvador were killed by right-wing and military death squads. Activists continue to call for justice in Romero’s assassination. Last year a Salvadoran judge reopened the case.

For more, we’re joined by Matt Eisenbrandt, who’s a human rights lawyer, author of Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice. The book won the 2017 Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America. Matt Eisenbrandt served on the trial team that brought the only court verdict ever reached for Óscar Romero’s murder.

As we continue Part 2 of our discussion, who was found guilty, Matt?

MATT EISENBRANDT: Well, the defendant in the case was named Álvaro Saravia, and he was sort of a right-hand man to Roberto D’Aubuisson, was the chief of security in his death squad, as well as somebody who actually kept notes on the activities of the death squad. Saravia was living in California, and that’s where we found his address and found the place where he had been living, and ended up bringing a case against him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a criminal case, and he didn’t go to jail. It was actually a civil lawsuit because those were the laws that were available to us in the United States. But we—our team did end up winning a verdict against him for $10 million in damages, where he was found responsible for the murder of Archbishop Romero, now Saint Romero, and also crimes against humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a protester on the streets of El Salvador this past week, demanding justice in Archbishop Romero’s death.

PROTESTER: [translated] It means starting a process with a victim who is emblematic, a person who was killed for telling the truth about what was happening at the time, who was a person who was murdered, including from those within the church who didn’t recognize him.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, as the pope made his announcement at the Vatican, thousands came out in El Salvador to respond to the canonization of Archbishop Romero. If you can talk, Matt Eisenbrandt, about who Óscar Romero was and his own evolution as he became archbishop of El Salvador and who he was holding accountable for the killing of so many thousands of Salvadorans?

MATT EISENBRANDT: Yes. Óscar Romero was archbishop of San Salvador, the capital and largest city, for just three years. And that was his time of prominence on the national and international stage. So it actually wasn’t all that long, because, of course, then he was murdered in his third year as archbishop.

He was very outspoken against all of the repressive forces in El Salvador, and at the time there were many. He used his position and his voice as the most important figure in the Catholic Church in El Salvador to denounce these abuses and the people who committed them. This was incredibly important because the media was controlled by a small group of wealthy individuals in El Salvador who, rather than reporting on these abuses, often denounced Romero in stark terms and in almost incredible terms. But as a result, his Sunday homilies became really the source of news about what was truly going on in the country. He would actually speak about people during the last week who had been tortured or whose bodies had been found. And he specifically denounced—he’s very well known for denouncing the military for its role in the repression, but he also would point out sometimes individuals, including at one point criticizing Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was such an outspoken and terrible figure, a just terrifying figure. So, he he called out all of those people and denounced them for their role in abuses, but also specifically addressed what was called the oligarchy, the wealthy families in El Salvador who controlled and dominated the economy. He spoke out very stridently against them.

So, there is a bit of a sense now that Romero was a national figure for El Salvador and he’s been embraced by most sectors of society. But in doing so, they—many people have sanitized his image to make him more, I guess, palatable for their beliefs. But, in fact, he was very outspoken and very critical of segments of the population that now are embracing him.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Roberto D’Aubuisson and read to you. In April of 1980, D’Aubuisson visited congressional Republicans in Washington, D.C., who assured him of their support. D’Aubuisson returned home saying, “We have spoke with various senators in the capital and they asked us that we maintain until November. … The Reagan Republicans will, (and) our luck will change.” Sure enough, when Reagan came to power a few months later, he began funding ARENA immediately. If you could talk about the significance of this party and Roberto D’Aubuisson’s connection to, as you describe it, the plot to kill Archbishop Romero, which ultimately was carried out?

MATT EISENBRANDT: Yeah. The ARENA party grew out of an understanding that D’Aubuisson had. As terrible a figure as he was, he was also—he was a very smart person and a very strategic person, and he understood that simply being involved in death squad activities and holding press conferences to denounce so-called communists in El Salvador was not itself enough. And he, along with several of the wealthier figures in El Salvador, eventually founded the ARENA party in 1981. And by 1982, two years after Romero’s assassination—

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, that’s just when Reagan had come to power, had become president of the United States.

MATT EISENBRANDT: That’s right. In fact, ARENA took many of its ideas from the U.S. Republican Party. And there was a lot of networking done between people who eventually were founders of ARENA and more conservative factions in the United States. There were connections with the office of Senator Jesse Helms and other important think tanks and organizations in the United States. The Reagan administration, over time, had a very up-and-down relationship with D’Aubuisson, in part because once Democrats ended up controlling Congress and controlling the purse strings that were connected to U.S. military assistance for El Salvador, there was a need to tamp down on death squad killings. And so, later, some of the Reagan policies shifted toward trying to prevent D’Aubuisson from having too much power. But in the early days of the Reagan administration, there was much more of a hands-off approach to—you know, to condemning D’Aubuisson the way that Carter’s administration had done. And so there was an important—a very important change. And certainly, D’Aubuisson and the people in the ARENA party were celebrating when Reagan became president in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: So, again, this evolution of Archbishop Romero to become archbishop at a time when the Salvadoran oligarchy knew a great deal of power, how did that happen?

MATT EISENBRANDT: Yeah, and I think you used the right word there: “evolution.” Romero was considered a fairly conservative figure, but not necessarily conservative, you know, in the political sense, but just somebody who wasn’t going to rock the boat too much. And when he was chosen as archbishop in 1977, the Catholic Church was so important in El Salvador that the Vatican actually consulted with people in the military government in El Salvador and consulted members of the oligarchy to see who should be the new archbishop. And their selection was Óscar Romero, because he was considered somebody who was going to allow the status quo to continue, whereas one of the other bishops that many of the priests who were out living in communities with campesinos, with the poor—you know, they supported another bishop. And so, Romero was seen as the conservative, as the the easier choice for them, for the powerful and the wealthy. So, he was not going to be too outspoken and was not going to rock the boat.

He had already been evolving in his thinking even before he became archbishop, but he was not anywhere near as outspoken and strident until he became archbishop of San Salvador. And three weeks after he became archbishop, one of his good friends, Rutilio Grande, who was implementing ideas of liberation theology in communities, and himself was very outspoken—and Rutilio Grande was murdered by a death squad just three weeks after Romero became archbishop. And this certainly pushed that evolution for Romero to where Romero became very critical of the government and continued, from that day forward, denouncing the abuses publicly.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the Hollywood film about Óscar Romero, the 1989 film Romero. In it, actor Raúl Juliá re-enacts a dramatic moment in Romero’s life, the one that we just played of Romero himself, in his famous sermon, calling on the Salvadoran Army to heed the words of God, “Thou shalt not kill.”

ARCHBISHOP ÓSCAR ROMERO: [played by Raúl Juliá] No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. In his name, and in the name of our tormented people who have suffered so much and whose laments cry out to heaven, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression!

AMY GOODMAN: There you have Raúl Juliá in the 1989 film Romero. Describe that day, Matt, if you will, where he gave this sermon that became so famous. And it was played throughout the country on radios. Was it played on television, as well? How controlled was the media at the time? So people heard it way beyond those at that mass.

MATT EISENBRANDT: Yeah, I don’t know if it was on television. I’ve never seen any footage of it. But certainly it was broadcast over the radio. And this was the way that Romero’s voice was amplified throughout the country and beyond. The archdiocese radio station would broadcast his homilies, and they would go out to hundreds of thousands of people around the country. And as a result of that, actually, the transmitter of the radio station was actually bombed multiple times during those years.

And there are just really dramatic scenes from that day, March 23rd, 1980. Romero, in the days before, met with a group of priests that he always consulted with ahead of his Sunday masses, and he discussed with them whether he should call on military soldiers to disobey the orders of their superiors, who were ordering them to kill and torture civilians. And there was a moment where he actually had this discussion with priests and then, as he often did, retired to pray and think on the issue. And they did not actually know if he was going to say this, because many of them had cautioned him that this was going too far.

But in the end, as you played there, Romero did make the decision to call on soldiers to disobey the orders of their superiors. And it was a tremendously important moment. The basilica that day was full of people, as it often was. And I should say here that in the book I quoted the testimony of William Wipfler, who had come down from the United States, was a very important figure in the Episcopal Church and, unfortunately, passed away just a few days ago. But his testimony about the mass that day was absolutely riveting in our trial. And he talked about the continuous applause that Romero received throughout the mass, which, for people in the United States, would be unheard of, to hear that sort of applause at a Catholic mass and just the emotion in the room. And you can hear on the audiotapes now of the radio broadcast the way that that applause built as he led up to that line saying, “Stop the repression.” And that then echoed throughout the radios around the country into every corner of El Salvador. It was really quite a moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And went beyond every corner of El Salvador, Matt. Is that right? You had Father Roy Bourgeois, who took that speech to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. He scrambled up into a tree with a cassette player. He put that cassette player in the tree. And when Salvadoran soldiers were being trained there, it was at night. It was dark. They were in their barracks at Fort Benning. School of the Americas, it was called at the time, now WHISC. He blasted Romero’s speech. “I urge you, I plead with you, I beseech you, to put down your arms.” For that, I think he served something like a year and a half in prison. That is Father Roy Bourgeois, who continues to live outside Fort Benning, Georgia, in a little house, protesting the training of Latin American soldiers inside.

MATT EISENBRANDT: The protests that Father Bourgeois has been leading for all these years at the School of the Americas has been so important in raising the profile and bringing attention to what was going on. And, you know, the fact is that in the 1970s and the 1980s there were military dictatorships throughout Latin America, and the U.S. government continued to train officers of those repressive militaries and, of course, provide military aid to many of them, most prominently El Salvador, where, following the famous letter that you mentioned before that Óscar Romero wrote to President Jimmy Carter—you know, frankly, at that time, I mean, he felt it was important enough to try to convince President Carter not to send that assistance that was being contemplated. But that was nothing. That was a drop in the bucket compared to the military assistance that would come under President Reagan during the 1980s, when the civil war was in full effect. And, you know, that assistance, including bullets and planes and bombs, you know, in addition to the training that Salvadoran officers were receiving, led to so much of the carnage and destruction in El Salvador during the 1980s.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from the 1980s of Roberto D’Aubuisson being interviewed by Diane Sawyer on CBS Morning News.

DIANE SAWYER: We’re about to have an election in this country. Who do you think would be better for El Salvador, in your view: Mr. Mondale or President Reagan?

ROBERTO D’AUBUISSON: [translated] I’m speaking now as just a man-in-the-street type of citizen. This is not advising to express opinions on the political situation of or the [inaudible] of another country. But undoubtedly, not only my country, but the entire Central American area would—for them, it would be very desirable that President Reagan win again. He has lit a light of hope for us, showing us that he does know the real situation of Central America and the Caribbean. He understands very well that Soviet expansion has been working hard on Central America and the Caribbean.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Roberto D’Aubuisson speaking in the 1980s on CBS News, being interviewed by Diane Sawyer. Now, Archbishop Romero was reportedly assassinated on the orders of the U.S.-backed death squad leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson. He went on to form the right-wing ARENA party and was found—in March 1993, the U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador issued a report that D’Aubuisson, quote, “gave the order to assassinate the archbishop.” Matt, when you were involved with the trial, with the Center for Justice and Accountability, that filed a civil suit against former Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia in the United States, where Saravia then lived, for his role in the assassination, the suit filed on behalf of a relative of Romero, CJA presented evidence that tied Saravia to the assassination, including testimony from his former driver, who transported the assassin to and from the crime scene. In 2004, a federal court issued this historic decision holding him responsible for his role in the assassination, ordering Saravia pay $10 million to the plaintiff. He went into hiding, as you’ve talked about, in 2003. What happened to him?

MATT EISENBRANDT: He did eventually leave the United States and went into hiding. We never found out precisely when he left the U.S. One of the stories I tell in the book is the very confusing information that we—and conflicting reports that we got during our investigation in trying to track him down. But eventually, he did make his way to Honduras and was laying low and actually, you know, had a little bar that he had opened, and then, one day, read a newspaper article about the verdict that we had won against him, and then he went into hiding. And in the book, I then talk about our later interactions and how we eventually found him.

To make a long story short, eventually, in 2010, after resurfacing a few times to give interviews in the press, he then gave what’s now considered sort of the most complete account, to journalist Carlos Dada of El Salvador. And Dada published extensive—a very extensive interview, an article, with Saravia, where he talks about his role and D’Aubuisson’s role and that of others in the murder of Archbishop Romero.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how you ultimately found him, Saravia.

MATT EISENBRANDT: Well, we ultimately found him because he contacted us. We had been investigating him for quite a while and had actually been able to get messages to him. But then things went quiet, and eventually he became so desperate. His situation was truly terrible. He was living underground. He had no resources, and he was trying to find a way out of his torment. And eventually he contacted us to try to find a way to resolve matters, where perhaps he would be able to turn that into a better financial situation for himself. That was not something that we were able to do, unless he was going to give us the absolute full and complete story of what had happened in the assassination of Romero and in Roberto D’Aubuisson’s death squad. In the end, he decided not to do that for us, but we did meet with him and tried to—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you meet with him?

MATT EISENBRANDT: —tried to get that information. In Honduras, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we—

MATT EISENBRANDT: And eventually—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Matt.

MATT EISENBRANDT: Oh, I’m sorry. I was just going to say that, eventually, several years later is when he did finally meet and do several interviews with Carlos Dada, who then published those interviews in the El Faro online newspaper. And that was the last—those were the last public statements we ever heard from Saravia.

AMY GOODMAN: And did he ever express regret?

MATT EISENBRANDT: Well, yes and no. You know, he said that he would—you know, he actually contacted the Salvadoran church and said that he was willing to ask for forgiveness. But then, you know, he was very—I guess I would say he was slippery in the way that he was dealing with these issues. You know, he would admit his involvement—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in these last 30 seconds, I want to go back to the bigger picture, where we began, Matt Eisenbrandt, as we end with you, you in Victoria, British Columbia, right now. The significance of the pope making Archbishop Romero or recognizing him as a saint?

MATT EISENBRANDT: His canonization yesterday, in his being named as a saint in the Catholic Church, is just a monumental event for El Salvador.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Matt Eisenbrandt. We’ve just lost him to satellite communications between New York, where we are, and British Columbia. You can go to for Part 1. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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